About this Recording
8.570451 - PARSONS, R.: First Great Service / Responds for the Dead
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Robert Parsons (c.1530-1572)
First Great Service • Responds for the Dead


'O Parsons, who were so fine in your first flower, how great you would be in your autumn had you not died.'

Little is known about the life of Robert Parsons. Much of his music has survived to the modern day, however, often in incomplete editions. Parsons was appointed as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1563, a post he held until his death in 1572, when he was succeeded by William Byrd. Parsons' output of music was varied, and although the majority of his surviving scores are for choir, he is believed to have written a large amount of instrumental music for the Chapel Royal as well. It is the story surrounding the death of Robert Parsons that arouses great intrigue. On a cold and wet January day, Parsons fell into a swollen River Trent and drowned. Such was the upset and suspicion surrounding his death that much of his music ceased to be performed in the Chapel Royal, as musicians tried to move on and forget this tragic incident. These unfortunate circumstances may also have led to the poor maintenance of Parsons' music over the years. The consequence of the lack of performance of Parsons' works after his death has, in the course of time, led to this English polyphonic master being largely unrecognised and even forgotten. With the aid of a complete set of new editions, the present recording aims to provide Parsons with a memorial service he never received and aid his return to a place alongside the more recognised English Renaissance composers.

In 1549 Edward VI ascended the throne of England, and with him brought the beginnings of the Reformation to the English Church. Thomas Cranmer's new Book of Common Prayer replaced the old Sarum Rite, and consequently all Latin church texts suddenly became translated into English. Parsons' First 'Great' Service was one of the first complete settings of the revolutionary 1549 texts, along with works by Sheppard and Tallis. The First 'Great' Service provides the core around which the theme for this recording as a remembrance service for Robert Parsons is set, and contains canticles for the services of Morning Service (Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus), Evensong (Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis) and also a setting of the Creed to be sung at Mass. Not only was the First 'Great' Service revolutionary for its setting of the new English texts, but it was also one of the first service settings to have musical unification between the different movements. Sheppard had experimented with this idea of unifying the multi-movement structure in his Second Service, and this work had more than likely served as Parsons' inspiration. The First 'Great' Service is scored for two antiphonal choirs, and the polyphony moves from between five to eight parts, with the countertenors always remaining separated. The First 'Great' Service would have provided the Chapel Royal with exactly what was required, as the work retained the magnificence in scale and polyphonic grandeur of the old Catholic tradition, but made use of the new Protestant liturgy. Such was the success of Parsons' First 'Great' Service that it is considered to have been the inspiration and model behind a number of more famous service settings, including Mundy's In Medio Chori service, Byrd's Great Service and Tomkins' Third Service.

The Magnificat set to Latin text opens this recording and is the largest-scale single work that Parsons wrote. By completing such a work, Parsons entered into a tradition that went back certainly as far as the fifteenth century, where many large settings can be found in the Eton Choir Book. Scored predominantly for a six-voice choir, the Magnificat is set in a style which sees the alternation of plainsong and polyphonic verses. While only a maximum of six parts are ever used, the scoring of each polyphonic verse differs, in some cases radically. Some verses are set for male voices alone, others for just upper voices, and others for the whole choir. With soaring soprano lines, and ingenious canon and polyphonic writing, the Magnificat represents some of Parsons' finest work.

Interspersed between movements of the First 'Great' Service are a number of pieces taken from the Responds for the Dead. The Responds for the Dead is a collection of three pieces set to text from the Burial Service. It is not known, however, whether all three settings were written at the same time, under the reign of Mary I. It is possible that a portion of the music may have been compiled during the reign of Elizabeth I, as, although it was during her reign that she brought back the English prayer book, she did also allow the writing of some music to Latin texts. Peccantem me, quotidie seems to be a modernised form of text for the Sarum Rite. With a Marian theme, the cantus firmus is carried in the higher of the two alto parts. Parsons clearly depicts the meaning of the text by setting the music low in the vocal register and by using dark intervals, creating a unique soundscape. Credo quod redemptor is written in a musical form cultivated in England during the mid-sixteenth century, which saw the second section of a work repeated to give an ABB style. Credo quod redemptoris lacks a cantus firmus and also does not use melismatic writing, placing its time of composition almost certainly into the reign Elizabeth I. The third and final of Parsons' funeral works, is Libera me, Domine. Once again this anthem uses a cantus firmus which is this time heard in the tenor part, over which the polyphony weaves a grim depiction of the final day of judgement.

Finishing this recording of remembrance for Robert Parsons is his most well known piece to modern audiences, Ave Maria. Whilst over the past centuries this text has been very popular for musical settings, unusually, it was only Parsons and his great contemporary and successor at the Chapel Royal, William Byrd, who used it in the sixteenth century. In this work, Parsons again uses the ABB form, and demonstrates the beauty of his polyphonic abilities. Fittingly, Parsons' Ave Maria would have been used in the Chapel Royal as a 'votive antiphon' to be sung as the final piece at the end of Compline.

Barnaby Smith


Sung texts and translations can be found at www.naxos.com/libretti/570451.htm


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